Glasgow FrightFest 2015: Post Mortem on New Horror

First published by Little White Lies

FrightFest: an evolving institution of madness

FrightFest began as a London event in August of 2000, and has since become the UK’s foremost genre festival, growing in scale, changing its Leicester Square venue multiple times, and spreading its tentacles to other parts of Great Britain. It first screened films – five of them – as part of February’s Glasgow Film Festival in 2006, and since than has expanded into an annual fixture there while doubling (and then some) in size. With past glories as rich and varied as Deadgirl, AmerSpliceRubberThe Raid and Proxy, The Glasgow FrightFest is now an institution, if an ever-evolving one.

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At it happens several of the films in this year’s programme were also about evolving institutions. Brad Anderson’s festival opener Eliza Graves is set at the turn of the century, as the inmates of Stonehearst Asylum (the film’s alternative title) await the arrival of the year 1900 – and there are other kinds of revolution afoot. Young Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives hoping to complete his training as an ‘alienist’, and shows particular interest in the demure ‘hysteric’ patient Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale) – but as Edward witnesses for himself the unconventional regime of liberal therapies that the institution’s progressive head Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) has introduced, he begins to wonder if the lunatics may have taken over the asylum.

Adapted from the same Edgar Allen Poe short story (The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether, 1845) that also inspired Jan Svankmajer’s 2005 film Lunacy, Eliza Graves is less horror than fin-de-siècle gothic melodrama – with several mind-bending twists. Yet despite all the well-mounted, if stock, episodes of cliff-top suspense, villainous duels and baroque bedlam, Eliza Graves is also actually about something. For here the clash between the utopian Lamb and his professional nemesis the regressive Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine) also represents a dialectic about differing approaches to care for the mentally ill and other marginalised figures in society – a discussion which is still ongoing today and remains deeply politicised. That debate, and the uncomfortable contradictions latent in popular perceptions and representations of psychiatry, are embodied in Silas Lamb – played by an actor cleverly reprising something like his part in 2010’s Shutter Island, only here even more ahead of his time, and with a character name that alludes (through a sly pun) to a very different kind of asylum-set horror film.

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Equally political is Chris Sparling’s The Atticus Institute – a faux documentary that combines in-house footage shot in the titular institution during the lead-up to its mysterious closure in 1976, and present-day to-camera reminiscences from surviving personnel. Headed by family man Dr Henry West (William Mapother) and run by a small team of committed ‘fringe scientists’, the underfunded Institute is trying to document and prove the existence of parapsychological abilities, with only modest statistical success and the odd fraudulent setback – but then drab-looking, disturbed fortysomething Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt) shows up, carrying within her powers that are so off the scale, so unnerving and menacing, that one of the staff calls in the military.

Deftly interweaving elements of The Men Who Stared at Goats with Paranormal Activity, and of The Exorcist with Banshee Chapter, Sparling’s film mixes media and crosses timelines to craft a possession chiller that certainly works very much on its own creepy genre terms. It also, however, dramatises how easily the initial idealism of an institution can be corrupted by the involvement of America’s military-industrial complex. The retrospective interviews keep drawing us from the found footage’s analogue-period recreations into the here and now, as a reminder that the battery of techniques used by the State’s alarmed agents against Judith – binding and hooding, sleep deprivation, light and sound torture, electroconvulsive shocks – are the same dehumanising methods employed in the current War on Terror. Judith may have a “god-like” – or demonic – entity inside her, capable of perpetrating immense damage, but in the heady atmosphere of the Atticus Institute, the real question to ask is what kind of insidious evil has possessed the apparatus of the State to act the way it does in response to something it barely understands. The setting is (mostly) the Seventies, but this is without doubt a post-9/11 movie, where the devil’s work has already been done and all innocence has long since been lost.

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Marcus Nispel’s The Asylum is also known as Backmask, and is being released in the US under the title Exeter – all of which might sound like an irrelevant account of post-production commercial considerations, except that it neatly encapsulates a film not just in search of a form, but also a name. Exeter School is a dilapidated institution that once accommodated all manner of unspeakable abuses against ‘challenged’ children, and was then turned into a catholic orphanage (with a strangely empowered inmate named Devon) before a mysterious fire, and is now being renovated to become a church-run community centre. All this bad history makes for a resonantly creepy and atmospheric haunted house in which Nispel plays out a fast-paced genre funride that cleverly compounds (and overtly references) its own clichés only to distract and disorient.

The young, drugged-up co-eds who decide to party one night at Exeter, and who drunkenly perform a ritual there in the morning, unleash a force that quickly possesses their youngest member, Rory (Michael Ormsby) – and these savvy teens recognise his symptoms immediately and waste no time in trying to call in a priest (Stephen Lang), attempting an exorcism (with help from a hilarious animated DIY website), and even consulting a makeshift ouija board (“I’ve watched movies about these things,” as Nick Nicotera’s character Knowles points out, “and none of them have ever ended with, ‘I’m glad we tried that.'”) Yet as, inevitably, the characters find themselves locked in and dying, one by one, in deliriously graphic fashion, they – and we with them – lose all sense of whether they are experiencing a demonic possession, encountering a vengeful ghost, or being manipulated by something else entirely. The results are a bewildering, often very funny and self-conscious journey through genre in its most crazily reflexive mode.

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A different kind of possession is to be found in Jon Watts’ Clown, a tense psychodrama about the monster within. When a hired clown fails to show up for the birthday party of seven-year-old Jack (Christian Distefano), his overworked, often absent father Kent (Andy Powers) steps in, donning an old, colour-worn costume that he finds in one of the houses in his realty portfolio. The outfit, however, proves too good a fit, and when Kent discovers that he is unable to remove it, and begins to transform into a terrifying creature that preys upon young boys, his wife Meg (Laura Allen) can only watch from the sidelines, wondering how far she will go to protect young Jack.

Clowns have always come with a double-edge, offering comic entertainment while concealing their true nature beneath make-up – and Clown too comes with a dual identity. On the one hand it is a full-blown creature feature, with its demonic backstory revealed in detailed exposition by antique costumes merchant Herbert Karlsson (genre stalwart Peter Stormare); yet on the other hand, all this genre material might be regarded as a mere guise for the more human – but no less harrowing – story of a family man’s losing struggle with his own paedophiliac impulses. The film cuts both ways, with Kent’s clownish killer part Stephen King’s Pennywise, part reality’s John Wayne Gacy, and although the material comes at times with its own inherent ridiculousness, Watts sticks to the harder route of never playing it for laughs.

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Hans Herbots’ The Treatment (aka De Behandeling) sticks to the paedophile theme, but although it features a woodland setting (that familiar locus of fairytale horror) and a creepy criminal mythologised by local children as ‘the troll’, here in fact there is none of the supernatural apparatus found in Clown. Instead, everything is rooted in the stark realist shades of modern noir, with a grizzled, downbeat ‘tec relentlessly pursuing his sick quarry in an attempt to exorcise ghosts from his own past. The detective is Chief Inspector Nick Cafmeyer (Geert Van Rampelberg), whose younger brother disappeared 25 years earlier when they were still both children, and who has ever since been taunted about his sibling’s grim fate by Ivan Plettinckx (Johan Van Assche), the ageing paedophile who, though the chief suspect in the case, could never be convicted. Now Cafmeyer is investigating another case of bizarre child abduction, and grows convinced that Plettinckx knows something – but as the policeman gets closer to one truth, he keeps getting further away from another.

The Treatment is based on the English 2001 bestseller by Mo Hayder, but has been transplanted to Belgium – where the case of that nation’s most notorious paedophile and child murderer Marc Dutroux casts a long shadow, haunting several key elements of the plot. This is a bleak, intense film about the most harrowing of crimes, showing the way that they can ramify and ripple through time. It is also a film about acts utterly unconscionable, even unimaginable, which Herbots expertly outlines without ever drifting into overexplicitness or sensationalist excess. In place of shock, we get shame: the shame of Cafmeyer, never able to find, let alone save, his baby brother; the different kind of shame experienced by the troll’s surviving victims, left to live with the truly horrific choices that they have made; and the shame of a nation that has unwittingly harboured abject atrocity in its midst. Most of all, though, The Treatment presents us with a doggedly obsessive character repeatedly being told that he must learn to let go, and then confronts us with the tragic consequences of that very lesson. It plays like an agonisingly powerful plea never to forget – and was without question the finest film of the Glasgow FrightFest.

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The first two (and frankly best) films in Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [REC] franchise both enjoyed their UK premières at previous Glasgow FrightFests, and the third (a solo outing by Plaza) first showed in the UK at FrightFest’s August event. Now, fittingly, Glasgow FrightFest has played host to the fourth and supposedly final instalment, [REC] Apocalypse, with Balagueró at the helm, making this the first complete series to have opened at FrightFest. Still, the intradiegetic shakicam that was used so innovatively in parts 1 & 2 has in the intervening years become as old hat and overdone as zombies themselves, and so Balagueró wisely leaves the apartment building forever behind and cleverly weaves CCTV shots and literal ‘found’ footage (from the earlier films) into a more objective filmmaking format, even as he brings things full circle by refocusing on the first two films’ protagonist Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco), while also reintroducing the one survivor of the third film (María Alfonsa Rosso).

This time the claustrophobia of the original is shifted to an ocean-bound ship, where sinister scientists, armed soldiers, abducted subjects and confused crew face another outbreak of zombie/possession mayhem. The rest is a mad dash to avoid being infected (or simply devoured), to locate patient zero, to find a cure, or to get off the boat entirely before it self-destructs, Alien-style. There is plenty of ferocious tension here, but also some very well-pitched goofiness, with even a cameo from the Sumatran rat monkeys of Peter Jackson’s proto-romzomcom from 1992, Braindead. Meanwhile one of the new characters, the ship’s radio officer Nick (Ismael Fritschi), is a slobbish computer geek who harbours a voyeuristic soft spot for Ángela and who spends the first half of the film painstakingly poring over footage from [REC] and [REC]2 – all of which makes him a hilariously perfect incarnation of the franchise’s ideal viewer.

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The idea of apocalypse is taken a little more literally in Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, the feature debut of Australian director/editor/production designer Kiah Roache-Turner (who also co-wrote with his brother Tristan). Here, after a meteor shower (expressly related to the predictions in Biblical Revelations) both removes the combustibility of ordinary fuels and transforms most of the population overnight into flesh-hungry zombies (as in the Spierig brothers’ similarly genre-crossing debut Undead), loving family man Barry (Joe Gallagher) finds himself having to dispatch his own wife and daughter, and then heading cross country in a traumatised daze to locate his kick-ass sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey), kidnapped by a disco-loving military doctor for some very unorthodox experiments. Soon Barry is joined by the similarly loss-afflicted Benny (Leon Burchill), whose stereotyping as an Indigenous character is perhaps no more outrageous than the larger-than-life caricaturing of near everyone else.

Most horror enthusiasts love zombies, but are also bored by them, the subgenre’s market having long since shuffled past its saturation point. Yet Roache-Turner reinvigorates this monstrous species through crazy innovation and pedal-to-the-metal excess. The blood and gore run satisfyingly – and ridiculously – thick, while various tooled-up men in sheds, garages and trailers get down to business for the coming post-apocalyptic dispensation by dressing themselves like Ned Kelly, and fitting out their utes like the armoured vehicles in Mad Max 2, while finding alternative fuel in… well, let’s just say that Roache-Turner also pays due homage, however improbably, to 2007’s Blood Car and 2010’s Road Train. Of course, much of the joy here is in the high-octane mix of weird and wacky tropes. They shouldn’t really fit together and probably don’t, but they certainly drive the narrative along, juggernaut-like, over any sense of expectation, familiarity or even good taste.

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April Mullen’s 88, co-written with her regular partner-in-crime Tom Doiron (they both also appear as the film’s most over-the-top characters) is a trippy road movie in which doe-eyed Gwen (Katherine Isabelle) flees the scene of a diner where she has just accidentally shot a waitress, and tries confusedly to reconstruct how she got there. As the amnesiac Gwen’s story lurches forward, exposing her to shootouts, jailbreaks and a rogues’ gallery of hard men whom she cannot remember, a story in flashback follows Gwen’s alter ego, the similarly confused but altogether more aggressive ‘Flamingo’ (also Isabelle). Seeking revenge for the death of Gwen’s lover Aster (Kyle Schmid), both these women cross paths with Ty (Doiron), who for his own reasons shares their murderous vendetta against local organised criminal Cyrus (Christopher Lloyd). As both Gwen and Flamingo keep being driven as much by as from a traumatic past event, a sympathetic sheriff (Michael Ironside) must also pick up the pieces and count the bodies left in their collective wake.

All this unfolds on the backroads of a hyperreal world of pure genre, a Lost Highway of roadside Americana where you might need a map to find your way through the B-movie terrain (and wild tonal inconsistencies). Unfortunately that map is provided in the film’s opening scene, a piece of text explaining authoritatively what a ‘fugue state’ is, and thus ensuring that what unfolds will forever remain Lynch for Dummies. As much as 88’s different storylines unfold in parallel and trace a twisty, Moebean circularity that mimics the title’s pictographic form, their narrative ingeniousness is undermined by this need to explain the mystery from the very outset, so that viewers are never in doubt what is going down. What remains, though, is a delirious fever dream of grindhouse encounters – even if the fugitive young woman at their centre is more a collection of postures than a character. Without that introductory exposition, this would have been a far more enjoyably bewildering ride. Instead, we are just left to watch everyone else catching up.

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If Edward Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) pulled off a self-authenticating trick that will be hard to repeat, and spurred the whole low-budget ‘found footage’ model that has dominated much of the horror landscape ever since, Russ Gomm’s documentary The Woods Movie comes with its own found footage: never-before-seen material that the Blair Witch crew recorded on lo-quality Hi-8 during pre-production, the shoot itself, post-production and the barn-storming première at Sundance. It is a veritable treasure trove, even if, disappointingly (but for obvious practical reasons), no behind-the-scenes footage exists of the crew’s legendary nocturnal terrorising of their three actors. Gomm intersperses new interviews with all the key personnel (apart from the original cast), who collectively offer real insight into what made the original film so ground-breaking in the ways it was conceived, shot and presented to the public. Still, there is no escaping the fact that, besides a festival like FrightFest, there is no real place for an ancillary feature of this kind apart from as an extra on a DVD.

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By contrast, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) is destined for Blu-ray release, but thanks to Arrow’s eye-popping restoration, looks right at home on the big screen. Also known as Six Women For The Murderer and set in and around a dummy-filled haute couture fashion house, this film represents giallo‘s very first boutique showroom, with its colour-coded murder by numbers and its masked-and-gloved killer making police procedural take a backseat to the stylised slaughter. There is definitely a plot buried away in all the rich drapery and antique furnishings, but Bava’s focus always remains on the dreamy mood and elegant design that create so many fashion victims. It is such a lysergic collision of high art and low that its very outmodedness has now become a paradoxical part of its timeless appeal – and from such heady heights, the only way could be down for the slasher genre that Bava’s film helped model.

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Enjoying its world première at the Glasgow FrightFest, Matt Winn’s The Hoarder has two principal locations: the beautiful yet minimalist (read: empty) apartment of Wall Street banker Brad where we first meet his fiancée Ella (Mischa Barton), anxiously marrying above her class; and the multi-storey EEZZEE Storage building where Brad – and many others – keep the messier detritus of their lives. Ella goes to the latter with her best friend Molly (Emily Atack), hoping to break into Brad’s lockup unit so that she can allay some trust issues. When something monstrous grabs Molly in the dark of EEZZEE’s basement floor, Ella joins forces with other people in the building – a nervous police detective (Robert Knepper), a divorcing couple (Charlotte Salt, John Sackville), a pharmaceutical saleswoman (Valene Kane) and a man between homes (Richard Sumitro) – hoping to find her friend, or just get out alive.

The biggest problem here is with plotting. Much like its ensemble characters with their different secrets to hide, The Hoarder tries hard at first to keep in storage the fact that once you have passed through its narrative corridors into the more gothic spaces below, what might originally have seemed like a supernatural creature feature is in fact deep-down a bog-standard (if rather twisted) slasher. All this only makes sense if you conveniently forget the behaviour – and power – of its earlier red herring, which in the end remains unexplained, and does not stand up to retrospective scrutiny. Still, if characters being picked off one by one with a range of tools is your bag, this comes nicely packaged. Winn puts to good (if repetitive) use a labyrinthine set where the lights are constantly switching themselves off and doors are automatically locking. And if you are prepared to look past the by-numbers murder (and worse) set-pieces, The Hoarder is also concerned with how we humans often keep the most private parts of our compartmentalised lives well beneath the surface – and how easily we can all be reduced to material objects.

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The festival’s closing film, Jay Dahl’s There Are Monsters, concerns a different kind of objectification, in which people’s outward appearance is a mere skin concealing something sinisterly alien within. Four students making an on-road documentary have unnerving encounters with others – especially twins – who look odd and display strange behaviours. It is hardly a spoiler to say that this is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario, because that is already made pretty clear in the film’s opening, highly arresting pre-credits sequence. From there, all that really remains is to play out variations on the same weirdness and paranoia, as our four heroes start to realise that they can no longer trust anyone else, or even each other, in a rapid takeover that appears to be on a global scale.

The Body Snatchers-type plot always plays upon a generalised fear of crowds, conformity and the loss of individuality. There Are Monsters certainly has that, although lacks any more specific contemporary resonance. References to an accident at the Hadron collider and to Capgras syndrome seem entirely throwaway. Even Dahl’s incorporation of the characters’ own footage seems purely for effect, as from the very outset the film also uses objective (albeit, confusingly, always handheld) camerawork to show events from angles invisible to the principals. What this film gets absolutely right, though, is its freaky scares, all anchored by four amicably real-seeming young people. As they complete their commissioned objective to shoot interviews at a school, a dental practice and a bank, we witness the world’s institutions maintaining a veneer of familiarity while undergoing fundamental change to accommodate new dispensations. That’s the ever evolving FrightFest too, in a nutshell – and its devotees look just like you and me…

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With thanks to FrightFest’s Greg Day and the Glasgow Film Festival team.

Anton Bitel